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O brother, where art thou?
Making sense of Bill Bulgerís testimony and the media frenzy it inspired
BY DAN KENNEDY

YES, UMASS PRESIDENT William Bulger appeared to have prepared for his congressional hearing last week by studying method acting in an Alzheimerís unit. And no, the members of Congress who questioned Bulger did not cover themselves in glory.

But there was much more to the all-day Washington marathon on June 19 than Bulgerís responding "I canít recall" to questions that were largely irrelevant. This was, after all, a major media moment ó the biggest local spectacle, in some ways, since the run-up to Bernard Cardinal Lawís resignation as archbishop of Boston last year. And it was a national spectacle, too: CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, and Fox News all covered it, as did the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Bill Bulger, the scourge of the media during his 17 years as president of the Massachusetts Senate, was in a place he doesnít like to be: in the spotlight, forced to answer uncomfortable ó if not well-thought-out ó questions about his relationship with his mass-murdering brother, underworld figure James "Whitey" Bulger. And there was much about the scene and its aftermath that was instructive.

Lesson No. 1: when a punditís mind is made up, itís made up, damn it. Unrevealing though most of the proceedings may have been, there were a few moments that should have forced even Bill Bulgerís most ardent supporters to cringe. The mention of his taking a call from Whitey at a prearranged location instead of at his home. His admission that he may have recommended his brotherís corrupt protector, former FBI agent John Connolly, for the job of Boston police commissioner. (And to what mayor would Bulger have made this recommendation? His rival from South Boston, Ray Flynn, a detail Bulger claimed not to remember.) His appearing to have more concern that Whitey would be killed if he turned himself in than he did for the many, many people who allegedly have been killed at Whiteyís behest.

Incredibly, though, Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant had this reaction on Sunday: "In America, we are supposed to begin with the basics we too often forget; in this case Bulgerís assertion ó which has never varied ó that he knows nothing about his brotherís whereabouts, has done nothing to assist him in his run from criminal responsibility, has never used a public office to assist his brotherís life of crime, has never connived with the FBI crooks for his own or his brotherís benefit, has never withheld information of probative value to the authorities."

Then again, Oliphant is a man who wrote in February 1998: "There was no phone sex; no heavy phone conversation of any kind; no dress with semen stains on it; no dress at all, in fact." Some things never change.

Nor was Oliphant the only Bill Bulger advocate. Lowell Sun columnist and WBZ Radio (AM 1030) talk-show host Paul Sullivan, in an appearance on the Fox News Channel, defended Bulger by saying, "I frankly have always found him to be a moral person and a person of great dignity. Iím not always in agreement with his politics, but frankly I think those people who are objective think that he is more of the good brother who is getting tanked."

At least Globe columnist Brian McGrory, writing last Friday, conceded that the idea of Bill Bulger as victim "doesnít quite add up." Still, McGroryís piece was notably sympathetic, swiping harder at "the hate-and-run crowd" than at the remarkably forgetful witness.

Granted, Iím just looking at the outliers; the overwhelming majority of punditry was antiĖBill Bulger. Still, itís interesting that some minds just will not be changed. Last Friday, on WGBH-TVís Greater Boston, John Carroll compared Bulgerís testimony to a "Rorschach test," explaining, "Whatever you thought going in was what you thought coming out. Either he said nothing, or he has nothing to say because heís innocent."

Lesson No. 2: all news is local. The Boston audience, of course, was riveted by the notion that Bill Bulger may have known about ó and possibly even benefited from ó his brotherís relationship with the FBI.

Whitey Bulger, as we all now know, was given protection by the FBI to carry out his criminal activities, including a string of vicious murders, in return for providing information about Gennaro Angiulo and his organized-crime family. Or, as John Connolly explained in May 1998 to another Bulger sycophant, thenĖGlobe columnist Mike Barnicle, "We destroyed the Angiulos in exchange for a gang of two, Whitey Bulger and Stevie Flemmi. Who wouldnít make that deal?" Never mind that Bulger and Flemmi wreaked more havoc in a typical week than the Angiulos did in their entire career.

But hereís the lead of a story this past Monday in the Belfast Telegraph: "The president of the University of Massachusetts, William Bulger, has told a Congressional hearing that he had no knowledge of an IRA gun-running operation organised by his brother, Irish-American crime boss, James ĎWhiteyí Bulger."

In other words, what seems like an interesting little wrinkle to a much larger story here is the story in Northern Ireland, where innocent people have died from bullets that came out of the barrels of Whitey Bulgerís guns. It demonstrates that Bulger dispensed violence and death in ways we havenít even begun to comprehend.

Lesson No. 3: television is king, and radio gets no respect. This is not news. Still, the antics of Boston Herald columnist and WRKO Radio (AM 680) talk-show host Howie Carr demonstrate how wide the gap is these days between TV notoriety and radio obscurity.

As has been widely noted, Carr somehow managed to position himself directly behind Bulgerís right shoulder, a perch he used to mug for the camera during the testimony ó rolling his eyes, shaking his head, and on one occasion even making a gagging motion with his finger. Carr has taken plenty of criticism for his performance, and he deserves it ó though Iím sure he couldnít care less.

Yet ó until now ó not one person has mentioned an incident that took place on Carrís radio show after the hearing. Taking advantage of his temporary location in Washington, he had as his guest Senator John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican who was focused like a laser beam on being ingratiating.

As Sununu was wrapping up one particularly overwrought expression of affection for Carr, a sound came up in the background that was unmistakable to anyone who has listened to The Howie Carr Show over the years: an unh! unh! unh! audiotape that is supposed to convey the idea of gay men.

Itís unclear whether Sununu heard it or even knew what it was supposed to mean. But for those of us who did, it was loathsome. And, of course, it was very much in keeping with the standards of Carrís show. His bobble-headed-doll act on TV was pretty tame by comparison. Yet the first was condemned and the second was ignored ó or, more likely, unheard, except among his knuckle-dragging regulars and a few of us political junkies.

Carrís producer, Doug "Virgin Boy" Goudie, says that the sound is of former Boston city councilor David Scondras, whoís openly gay, clearing his throat at a news conference some years ago to respond to charges of sexual impropriety. Ever since, Goudie adds, the tape has been played to imply homosexuality.

Because Goudie was in Washington with Carr, he couldnít hear the clip, he says ó but adds, "I mightíve played it myself." Neither Goudie nor WRKOís executive producer, Rich Carbery, report having received any complaints.

And what about Carr himself? He says that because he was wearing headphones, he presumably should have been able to hear it, but canít remember. "I hate to sound like Billy Bulger," he says. Would he have played it if it had been up to him? "It was just silly," he replies. "I wouldnít have done it." But silliness aside, was it offensive to play the clip while a US senator was in the studio? "No, I donít think so," he says. Oh, of course not.

ON AUGUST 8, 1993, 60 Minutes broadcast a lighthearted segment on Bill Bulger, one of several the program had done on a man who was clearly seen as a delightful rogue. Mike Barnicle, naturally, was brought in as a character witness. And CBS correspondent Morley Safer explained the Bulger charm like this:

"It surprises no one in Boston when Billy Bulger gets re-elected. First of all, because he has power and is not afraid to use it; second, because other politicians are scared of him; and third, well, in this age of gray, faceless men, itís just plain fun to have a leader with blood in his veins."

The fun, needless to say, is long gone.

Earlier this month, Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis offered some evidence as to why politicians feared Bulger during his heyday as Senate president. It was not, as Safer had implied years earlier, that they worried about getting a windowless basement office if they crossed him on a vote. No, it was rather more serious than that.

As Gelzinis told it, a former South Boston political figure named John Powers ó now deceased ó had removed Whitey Bulger from a no-show courthouse job; his own salary had been frozen for years in apparent retribution. One night, Powers and his wife were crossing the street in the North End on their way to a political function when they were nearly run down by a speeding car. Inside the restaurant, Powers confronted Bill Bulger. As Gelzinis recounted it, Bulger told him: "You are no friend of the Bulger family." (Gelzinis repeated the story, with a few more details, this past Tuesday.)

Now, it would appear, the end game is at hand for Bill Bulger. As Gelzinis reported several weeks ago, the stateís attorney general, Tom Reilly, is calling for his resignation ó a significant step, since Reilly, like Bulger, is a Democrat.

This Thursday, the UMass board of trustees was scheduled to meet behind closed doors to discuss Bulgerís fate. In the past, the board has shown a decided reluctance to be bullied by Republican governor Mitt Romney, who also wants Bulger to go. But now the dynamic may have changed ó especially if any of the universityís major contributors caught Bulgerís act on C-SPAN.

Last Saturday, the Globeís Shelley Murphy, whoís been reporting on organized crime for years, noted several discrepancies between Bulgerís congressional testimony and the transcript of his testimony before a federal grand jury two years ago. (Such testimony is supposed to be secret, but a copy of the transcript was leaked to the Globe last year on the eve of Bulgerís first appearance before congressional investigators, when he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.) The most striking: whereas last week Bulger denied that the reason he took a call from his brother at a friendís house was in order to avoid electronic surveillance, he said heíd done exactly that when he appeared before the grand jury.

Bulger is unlikely to be indicted for perjury, as Murphyís own reporting concluded. But you donít have to be part of Brian McGroryís "hate-and-run crowd" to believe that Bill Bulger should end his public career, the sooner the better. Billy is not Whitey. He does not deserve to be painted with the same brush. But whatever reputation he had for probity is now in tatters. As his friend John Silber once said, when youíre ripe, itís time to go. One suspects that Bulger himself knows it, and will leave as soon as a decent interval has passed, provided that Romney doesnít try to stick it to him on his pension.

Depending on whether you consult the FBI or the State Police Web site of most-wanted fugitives, Whitey Bulger is implicated in either 18 or 19 murders. This puts him in a league with such serial killers as Jeffrey Dahmer, who was convicted of killing 16 people, although Bulger was not as prolific as Ted Bundy, who was believed to have murdered 36.

Two years ago, when Bulger was asked before the grand jury whether he had urged Whitey to surrender, he reportedly replied, "I doubt that I did ... because I donít think it would be in his best interest do so."

His answer last week wasnít much better.

Try to imagine a relative of Jeffrey Dahmerís or Ted Bundyís making a similar statement. Would anyone accept that? Would such a person be able to keep his job at Wal-Mart ó let alone as president of a major public university?

The answer is obvious. Which is why, after all these years, the Bill Bulger era is now rapidly drawing to a close.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

Issue Date: June 27 - July 3, 2003
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